Super Bowl 2014: Defensive X-Factors That Will Decide Seahawks vs. Broncos

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Super Bowl 2014: Defensive X-Factors That Will Decide Seahawks vs. Broncos
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Perhaps the most popular phrase in all of sports punditry is "in today's NFL." In today's NFL, passing trumps running. In today's NFL, offensive records are being shattered by the minute while good old-fashioned defense gets discarded like old undergarments.

In today's NFL...le sigh. 

While the Denver Broncos did spent most of their season tearing the NFL's offensive record books to shreds, championship games in both conferences proved just how much defense still matters. No team in the championship round scored more than 26 points. It was the fourth straight season that no team in a conference title game hit the 30-point mark.

You cannot get to Super Bowl Sunday on the back of only an awesome offense. It helps, of course, but being good on both offense and defense is typically the best way to be good at, you know, football. And even though Seattle is far more dependent on its non-scoring unit than Denver, both are going to need big plays and stops to stay in the game.

The Seahawks and Broncos have been Super Bowl favorites since last February for a reason; they are very good at professional football. But with important injuries hanging over the rosters of our finalists, a few players stand out as especially needing to have a stellar outing.

Here's a look a couple of those stars.

 

Game Information

Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET

Watch: Fox

Live Stream: Fox Sports Go

Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider

 

Richard Sherman (CB, Seattle Seahawks)

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

You come at the king, you best not miss. Colin Kaepernick missed by juuust enough to allow Sherman to get his right hand on a ball intended for Michael Crabtree and bat it in the general direction of linebacker Malcolm Smith. 

Then Sherman ethered Crabtree with some of the best postgame slander in recent NFL history. You've seen the clip eleventy billion times by now and will see it eleventy billion more—if only because you cannot force yourself to stop watching over and over again. Sherman, screaming like the Unforgivable dude. Erin Andrews, looking petrified and just hoping to avoid all FCC fines.

It was fun for one and all. 

But sometimes Sherman's antics obscure one unalienable fact: He's probably the best cornerback in football. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sherman graded out No. 1 in coverage snaps per reception, with his 18.3 average being nearly two better than Darrelle Revis. Opposing quarterbacks had just a 47.3 quarterback rating while throwing in his direction, also the best among the 81 corners who received 50 percent or more of their team's snaps.

The man is unbelievable. Drew Brees wasn't able to have any success against him. Kaepernick again lived out a Seattle nightmare, staring down his receivers for most of the day—in what I have to assume was partially influenced by Sherman standing out there on an island.

This is important because the Broncos would kindly like to pass the football. Peyton Manning's historic season has already been given its necessary plaudits, and he's certainly smart enough to find ways to affect the game without picking on Sherman. It will just be interesting to see how he goes about doing that and how Pete Carroll chooses to deploy his best defensive weapon.

In the NFC Championship Game, Sherman covered Crabtree and Vernon Davis, depending on the alignment. Demaryius Thomas will probably see the majority of the coverage in the Super Bowl to suppress Denver's downfield passing game, but maybe Carroll will try him out on Julius Thomas as well. Merely having Sherman on the field should be enough, though.

 

Shaun Phillips (DE, Denver Broncos)

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Brought in to help replace the departed Elvis Dumervil, the 32-year-old Phillips had a stellar first season in Denver. He recorded double-digit sacks for just the third time in his 10-year career, had little trouble transitioning to a down-lineman after years standing up and seemed rejuvenated outside of San Diego.

Of course, Phillips' role has only become more integral as the season has gone along. Von Miller's season-ending ACL injury leaves Phillips as the only reliable pass-rusher in Denver's front seven. With injuries in the secondary making that unit even more shaky than it already was, it will be critical that Phillips comes out and gets pressure early.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Russell Wilson ultimately had a fine NFC Championship Game, but his propensity for risky decisions under pressure nearly cost Seattle at multiple points. He fumbled twice and lost one, had a bad intentional grounding penalty and took four sacks. The 49ers were able to beat Seattle's offensive line on the edges, and Wilson's ability to extend the play proved a gift and a curse in that respect.

Doug Baldwin was the recipient of a 51-yard bomb that came after a spectacular escape. But the 10 quarterback hits and Wilson's overall struggles under pressure are concerning. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Wilson was 4-of-10 under pressure against San Francisco and had a negative overall rating. For the season, he was only slightly above replacement level.

With Miller on the sidelines and Robert Ayers being only intermittently effective, it will be up to Phillips to have the night of his life. If he's able to replicate his season-long production, Wilson might be forced into taking bad sacks or turning the ball over. If Phillips can't, well, maybe "Pot Roast" can replicate his AFC title game.

Either way, Wilson can't have all night to throw.

 

Michael Bennett (DE, Seattle Seahawks)

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Manning doesn't have quite the same troubles against pressure. At least that's what the numbers say. Only Philip Rivers was more accurate under duress than Manning during the regular season, and the NFL MVP has been insanely proficient during the postseason, hitting 7 of 9 throws.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Peyton Manning has been under pressure for exactly nine throws in two postseason games. He hasn't been sacked yet. His 11.4 pressure percentage is less than half that of any other quarterback, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That is completely and utterly bat-squat crazy—and perfectly aligned with what he's done all season. No quarterback was pressured less often during the regular season, either, though the rate was 22.7 percent then.

We all know the reasons for this. Denver employs a quick-strike passing game, one that mitigates the effect of pass-rushers by design. Manning might be the smartest quarterback in NFL history, calling reads and adjusting blocking assignments in between shoutouts of Nebraska's most famous city. Arm strength may no longer be Manning's strong suit, but his rapid release makes it even harder to make a play.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Seattle's biggest strength, probably behind Sherman and Earl Thomas, is its depth on the defensive line. Thanks to the cap space provided by Russell Wilson's piddly contract—remember, Jay Cutler will take up more than $20 million of the Bears' cap in 2014; Wilson will make just over $800,000—the Seahawks were able to load up on veteran pass-rushers during the offseason.

The best of those was Bennett, who will play an integral role in everything Seattle does against Denver. Bennett had a team-high 8.5 sacks during the regular season, was a stellar run defender and did nearly everything well within the given system. Sherman, Thomas and the rest of the secondary wouldn't nearly be as good without an excellent front seven.

Bennett was one of the best. He was ranked third among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and teammate Cliff Avril wasn't too far behind in sixth. The way to defeat Manning is the same as always: Hit him early and force happy feet. If the Seahawks can do that with their front four instead of having to send blitzes Manning's way, things might get awfully sticky for the league's best offense.

 

Champ Bailey (CB, Denver Broncos)

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This game has been a long time coming for Bailey. Once the best cornerback in the game and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, Bailey's 2013 season was marred by injuries. He played in only five regular-season contests while dealing with a foot injury, but he wasn't all that effective while on the field. If you believe Newton's third law applies to aging professional football players, Bailey's lost season was the equal negative to Manning's career year.

But when the Broncos needed him most, Bailey came through.

With starter Chris Harris out for the season, John Fox asked his aging veteran to step back into his old role on the outside and Bailey responded well. He played 56 snaps, his most since Week 6, and seemed to take pride in being there for his teammates, per Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post:

This is what it's all about, get yourself a chance to get in the big one. That's where we are now. I knew I would come back — you might not have known — but I knew I'd be back at some point. My coaches and teammates never gave up on me. And here I am, playing my best football of the year. I'm just looking forward to the next one, man.

The next one will be the first time Bailey has ever played in the Super Bowl—and his role won't be any smaller. Harris is still out, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be looking toward Bailey to help cover Seattle's array of similarly skilled wideouts.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

That onus will likely fall on Bailey. While Golden Tate isn't the type of burner who you would expect to take advantage of an aging player, he's a feisty, physical player who doesn't have any qualms about mixing it up. It will be a challenging matchup for Bailey in that sense, seeing as there still has to be some leftover rust there from the regular season.

Wilson isn't going to go out and throw for 400 yards, but he's a smart guy. He knows Bailey's injury issues and will look to take advantage. How Bailey handles that will decide whether his first Super Bowl is a dream come true or a nightmare.  

 

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